With the Founding Fathers as Our Press Gang
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 12:25:18 PM EST
This post seems as relevant today as it was when I first posted on May 6, 2008. -- FC

Jill Lepore has a wise and erudite article in The New Yorker about four recent books about the Founding Fathers and their approach to religion and government.  All four books debunk Christian nationalism, and Lepore takes a whack at a little historical revisionism from Tim LaHaye along the way herself.  But most importantly, Lepore has a useful and illuminating take on the tricks history plays on us, as various of us attempt to press characters from history to score contemporary points.

Whether the mail should be sorted on Sundays, whether "In God We Trust" belongs on our coins, whether the Pledge of Allegiance should include "under God," whether our children should pray at school, whether we can have crèches on town commons at Christmas, everyone wants to know: What would the Founders do?

It's a question Thomas Jefferson found ridiculous. In 1816, when he was seventy-three and many of his revolutionary generation had already died, he offered this answer:

"This they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. . . . Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind."
The Founders believed that to defer without examination to what your forefathers believed was to become a slave to the tyranny of the past. Jefferson put it this way:
"Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the arc of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human."

The four books achieve a kind of consensus in four related lines of argument. First, the United States was founded neither as a Christian nation nor as a secular one. Second, by the standards of Evangelicals of both their day and ours, Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison were not Christians; they wrestled, often profoundly, with religious questions, but, as Church points out, "they all doubted the divinity of Christ." Third, the disestablishment of religion is itself responsible for Americans' unusual religiosity, which (these writers all believe) is something to celebrate. Fourth, notwithstanding the Founders' own remarkable secularism, the liberation of religion from government as much as the reverse was their aim. "The separation of church and state has greatly benefited religion, as Madison and Jefferson predicted that it would," Wills writes. Nussbaum argues that because "the separation of church and state is, fundamentally, about equality, about the idea that no religion will be set up as the religion of our nation," in the end "separation is also about protecting religion." Waldman writes, "Madison, I suspect, would . . . be delighted by surveys showing that, compared with most developed nations, Americans believe in God more, pray more, and attend worship services more frequently."

Because this debate is an argument about how the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, people who enter it begin their investigation with the Founders; quite often, they end it there, too. Somewhere along the way, they almost always fall to wondering what James Madison would make of the latest Gallup polls or whether Benjamin Franklin would get along with Christopher Hitchens. That's how this debate works; that's the pack of tricks this history plays on the past. The problem is that constitutional jurisprudence, however essential it is to the rule of law, will always tend to produce a history in which the entire eighteenth century is reduced to the intellectual lives of a handful of men. And, because our tradition of constitutional jurisprudence is so important, that history can be all the history most Americans get. Needless to say, it's a history that leaves out a lot--not least, every other American who ever spread, advanced, or challenged the idea of religious liberty: people like printers turning out newspapers, mothers rearing children, pastors preaching to small towns, and, even, now obscure novelists. Maybe it's time for another pack of tricks.




Display:
are an ongoing important element of the struggle with the Religious Right. It is an area where most of us can use some improvement.  This article contains some important lessons.

by Frederick Clarkson on Wed May 07, 2008 at 02:42:59 PM EST
especially when you consider how difficult coming to an understanding of historical events can be - and that we never will really know "the whole story".  It's been encouraging that historians have returned to source documents for their evidence in the past few decades, and also consulted with archaeologists (who find physical evidence - either supporting, disproving, or illuminating other aspects of the time) and other specialists to try to comprehend what actually happened.

Understanding the thinking of the people of the time... that can be even more difficult (in archaeology, trying to understand ideology from physical evidence is problematic), although their prolific writing helps a lot.  I'm sure that there are nuances scholars have missed and which we never will know.

That being said, I also think that we can come to some knowledge of history (and the thinking of the people in question) - and the work of the people you've referred to is part of that struggle.


by ArchaeoBob on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 06:33:38 PM EST
Parent

No matter how hard scholars try, we can never go back and know exactly what the Founders' writings meant to them and to their readership at the time. As a conductor friend of mine observed in a lecture on "period instrument" performances, we can put a lot of effort into recreating instrument construction, vocal technique, performance style, etc., but what we can never do is give our audience 18th century ears.

In the same way, we who live post-Freud and Marx and Keynes (to name just three seminal writers whose work profoundly influences modern thinking, no matter whether you agree or disagree with them) simply cannot turn off the messages and assumptions of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. If Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison were writing today, I am confident that they would use a whole different vocabulary to express their ideas. I appreciate the careful work that scholars are doing, but we have to remember that everything is interpretation filtered through modern-day understanding.

by MLouise on Sat Feb 16, 2013 at 07:16:49 PM EST
Parent
Having the understanding and "ears" of the hearers of the time is one of those nuances.  

We will never be able to really grasp that, but at the same time I do believe we can have some understanding of history - just not the whole picture.

Most people of this age also don't grasp what life was really like during that period... except maybe in some sort of glorified "movie" sense (from watching movies and TV) - which is usually more wrong than right anyway.  That understanding is another point where we (the people today) can never get the whole picture... but I'd quickly argue that we can get part of it (through hard work and careful scholarship).  Scholars have to have some level of that understanding - and when we're talking about people like Lahaye, they don't even try (because it's not "scriptural" - doesn't fit with the myopic and error-filled idea of Christianity and the Bible anyway).

Since we don't "know it all" and can't, we should also be careful...


by ArchaeoBob on Sun Feb 17, 2013 at 12:56:01 PM EST
Parent






WWW Talk To Action


A Talk to Action Anthology on Neo-Confederacy, Nullification and Secession (Updated)
Over the past year, a number of posts have addressed the growing Neo-Confederate movement, the advocacy of nullification of federal laws, and even the......
By Frederick Clarkson (3 comments)
Two Years Ago Today, the 'Least Credible History Book in Print' was Published
This post is an updated version of my post from this same date last year, which, not surprisingly, was titled "One Year Ago Today,......
By Chris Rodda (1 comment)
Geocentrist Creationists Seek To Become The Center Of Attention
There are days when fundamentalist zealots do something so off the wall that I don't know whether to laugh or cry, so I do......
By Rob Boston (5 comments)
A Full Quiver of Bad Advice
Mike Huckabee mailed out an open invitation to all Texas pastors inviting them to attend the Texas Renewal Project.  The first 1,000 to respond......
By wilkyjr (7 comments)
Opus Dei Priest's Secessionist Roadmap to Theocracy
Fr. C.J. ("John") McCloskey is in many ways the  American face of the secretive Catholic organization, Opus Dei.  He is a former Wall Streeter,......
By Frank Cocozzelli (10 comments)
Don't Be April Fooled by Far-Right Activists Dressed Up as Democratic Candidates
This is cross-posted from The Huffington Post. It expands and updates previous posts about the Neo-Confederate theocrats Michael Peroutka and Pastor David Whitney. Maryland......
By jhutson (0 comments)
Dangerous Defiance: Md. Official Ignores Court Ruling On Sectarian Prayer
I'm not a lawyer, but let me give you a little free legal advice anyway: It's never a good idea to defy a federal......
By Rob Boston (1 comment)
Catholic Right Leader Unapologetic about Call for 'Death to Liberal Professors'
Austin Ruse doesn't understand why people were so upset when he said on a national radio program that university leaders "should all be taken......
By Frederick Clarkson (0 comments)
Justice For All: The Supreme Court And The Role Of The Justices' Religious Beliefs
Today's Washington Post has an interesting story about how the personal religious beliefs of members of the Supreme Court might affect their decisions.The question......
By Rob Boston (0 comments)
RINO Says His Dino Proves Noah's Flood -- Wha Wha What?
Michael Peroutka, the presidential candidate of the Constitution Party in 2004 and co-founder of the theocratic Institute on the Constitution, made news recently when......
By jhutson (0 comments)
Franklin Graham Slams Obama and Supports Putin in Battle Over Gay Rights
With a column vigorously supporting Vladimir Putin's anti-gay crusade in Russia, Evangelist Franklin Graham finds himself edging closer to inheriting the mantle of Fred......
By Bill Berkowitz (3 comments)
Neo-Confederate Democrats: Oxymorons?
“Many of you may be thinking that I have lost my mind,” Republican Del. Don Dwyer wrote in a March 2013 email and Facebook......
By jhutson (2 comments)
The Catholic Right Star & the Porn Star -- UPDATED
A Duke University freshman best known by her stage name Belle Knox has been much in the news. She was even interviewed by Piers......
By Frederick Clarkson (5 comments)
Baptists and Bullets in Texas Politics
One thing regional Baptist GOP candidates share in common is a deep affection for gun rights.  The endorsements of pro-gun positions takes precedence over......
By wilkyjr (1 comment)
The Battling Noahs & The Titanic Film Comeback of Noah & His Ark
Who would have imagined that in 2014, Noah, yes the Noah of the Biblical story of Noah and his Ark, would be garnering so......
By Bill Berkowitz (1 comment)

America's Most Convenient Bank® refuses to serve Christians
Representatives of a well known faith-based charitable organization were refused a New Jersey bank’s notarization service by an atheist employee. After inquiring about the nature of the non-profit organization and the documents requiring......
Jody Lane (1 comment)
John Benefiel takes credit for GOP takeover of Oklahoma
Many of you know that Oklahoma has turned an unrecognizable shade of red in recent years.  Yesterday, one of the leading members of the New Apostolic Reformation all but declared that he was responsible......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
John Benefiel thinks America is under curse because Egyptians dedicated North America to Baal
You may remember that Rick Perry put together his "Response" prayer rallies with the help of a slew of NAR figures.  One of them was John Benefiel, an Oklahoma City-based "apostle."  He heads up......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Yes, that's right. We have totally lost our religious freedom in Mississippi and it must be restored by our legislators. ......
COinMS (0 comments)
Bill Gothard accused of harassing women and failing to report child abuse
Surprised no one's mentioned this, but one of the longest-standing leaders of the religious right is in a world of trouble.  Bill Gothard has been active in the fundie movement for over half......
Christian Dem in NC (1 comment)
Eugene Delgaudio may lose his day job as Virginia county supervisor
Surprised no one's noticed this, but one of the nation's most virulent homophobes is in a fight to keep his day job.  Eugene Delgaudio is best known as the head of Public Advocate......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
Starkville Becomes First City in Mississippi to Pass Resolution Recognizing LGBT Residents
This caught me by surprise. I guess times are a changin in Dixieland. ------------------------------------- Cross posted from the HRC blog. Starkville Becomes First City in Mississippi to Pass Resolution Recognizing LGBT Residents January 21,......
COinMS (0 comments)
Robert Knight: Running against evolution could potentially be a winner for the GOP
In one of the starkest instances yet of how far gone the religious right is, one of its leading activists thinks that he's found another potential wedge issue that could drive more people into......
Christian Dem in NC (2 comments)
First Catholic official convicted in child sex abuse scandal has conviction overturned
Last year, Monsignor William Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's secretary for clergy, was convicted of reassigning a priest whom he knew had molested a young boy to a parish that had a school attached......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
Quotes From Sarah Palin 'War on Christmas" Book v. Quotes From 1920s Anti-Jewish Propaganda
The point of this comparison is not to cast Sarah Palin as a Nazi. Rather, my intent is to underline uncomfortable similarities between contemporary "war on Christmas" talking points propagated by elements of the......
Bruce Wilson (0 comments)
Francis sets up commission on how to deal with pedophile priests
Late yesterday Pope Francis announced--apparently after some prodding--that he will set up a panel to advise him on how to deal with child abuse by priests. The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the......
Christian Dem in NC (0 comments)
John Hagee: Jews will make deal with Antichrist before End Times
When John Hagee opens his mouth, you expect to hear lunacy.  An appearance earlier this month on TBN was no different.  On Friday, People for the American Way stumbled on a special prophecy-focused edition......
Christian Dem in NC (1 comment)
Doug Phillips Resigns From Vision Forum over "Inappropriate Relationship"
Doug Phillips resigned as president of Vision Forum earlier this week, citing an "inappropriate relationship."   Phillips posted an announcement on the Vision Forum website, stating, There has been serious sin in my life......
Rachel Tabachnick (2 comments)
A Wiccan Witch In Salem
Since it's only two weeks from Halloween, I made my usual foray into Christian Right Country to find out what their plans are for this Halloween. I don't know where to be sad or......
irishwitch (0 comments)
Jerry Falwell's Fundamentalist Liberty University Still Getting Hundreds of Millions in Federal Aid
In 2010, Liberty University got more federal funding than the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. In a 2011 Talk To Action story, contributor Bill Berkowitz covered the new trend in which right-wing evangelical colleges and......
Bruce Wilson (2 comments)

More Diaries...




All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. Comments, posts, stories, and all other content are owned by the authors. Everything else 2005 Talk to Action, LLC.